East End Memories

REMEMBERING THE EXCELSIOR, BETHNAL GREEN

 
THE EXCELSIOR - CONSTRUCTION & HISTORY
 
 
The Excelsior Hall & Swimming Baths was constructed in 1889 to the original design of A. Wooster-Reeves at the corner of Mansford and Florida Street in Bethnal Green.  At that time, it contained two swimming baths, which were covered during winter months and the space used for meetings and concerts.  In 1898, Oxford House acquired the building on lease for eighty years. 
 
Plan for the Excelsior Hall & Swimming Bath, May 1889
 
In 1921 the Hall was converted into the Excelsior Kino using plans drawn up by Emden & Egan, architects.  Despite the building changes, lectures continued to be given on Sunday afternoons and one night each month was devoted to operatic productions.  At that time, the stage was eighteen feet deep and there were five dressing rooms.  The building underwent further minor reconstruction in 1926 under the direction of Frank Matcham & Company.
 
Plan for the Proposed Alterations to the Excelsior and Conversion, July 1920
 
Floor Plan of the Excelsior Kino, May 1926
 
In May 1928, Queen Mary visited the Excelsior.  During a two-hour visit, she was treated to a presentation of Il Pagliacci as performed by the Oxford House Choral Society and a showing of the film Chang.  Following her visit, she was accompanied by the Mayor of Bethnal Green, Mr. M.H. Seymour, on a visit to Oxford House.  As she left the Excelsior she walked between a guard of honour formed by members of the choral society.
 

Visit of Queen Mary to the Excelsior, May 1928

 
In 1939, the Excelsior Kino underwent further changes.  Both the exterior and the interior were remodeled in Art Deco style by Maple & Company which was a top designer and retailer of furniture at the time.  Following the remodeling, the seating capacity was 661.
 

Floor Plan of the Excelsior Kino, circa 1930

 

Plan for the Proposed External Modernisation of the Excelsior, 1939

 

The Excelsior was always an independent cinema and was never affiliated with one of the large cinema chains.  However, during the time when I visited the cinema, the films most often screened were those concurrently shown on the North East J. Arthur Rank Gaumont circuit. 

Between 1948 and 1956, which were the years when I visited the cinema, the large auditorium was exclusively used to screen films.  Its days of being a venue for opera were long since over.  In addition, I cannot ever remember the second smaller hall being used for any purpose at all.  In those days, the weekly programme began on Monday afternoon and ran each day until Saturday evening.  It consisted of two films, Movietone News, trailers of next week’s programme and assorted advertisement produced by the Pearl & Dean Company Ltd.  The cinema opened each day at about 1.30 p.m. and the last complete showing generally began at about 7.30 p.m.  Screening on Sundays began at about 4 p.m. and the programme consisted of two films previously released and was presented just for one day only.  According to the Crime Figures of the time, the weekly number of domestic violence crimes peaked on Sunday afternoon between the hours of 2 p.m., which was when the Public Houses closed, and 4 p.m. when the cinema opened their doors.

Entrance to the cinema was at the corner of Mansford and Florida Streets.  Glass doors opened into a large vestibule with a box office in its centre.  I don’t recall any posters or studio still photographs of the present or future programme in the vestibule.  The patron informed the ticket saleswoman of the price of ticket and number required through a small opening positioned at mouth level in the glass shield present to maintain distance between her and the patron.  Tickets were spat out from a dispenser, which she caught and passed to waiting hands through an opening slit in return for the correct money.  Once tickets were purchased, patrons walked proceeded along the corridor that led to the auditorium.  The back of the auditorium and the windows of the projection room were on Florida Street. 

The corridor was not carpeted, but covered with a hard linoleum-like material that was yellow in colour.  On both sides of the corridor were a series of doors, which I presumed led to offices and storage areas.  The walls were decorated with posters of lesser known films, all of which seemed to star John Payne.  John Payne had made a name for himself while appearing in a number of musicals with Alice Faye and Betty Grable that 20th Century Fox released in the 1940s.  He also made a number of comedy and western films, the most famous of which was Miracle on 34th Street where he defends and succeeds in proving that an old man is indeed Father Christmas/Santa Claus. He later starred in a number of film noire B films which he also produced.  These films made Mr. Payne a wealthy man, but not from their box office takings.  Apparently he had shrewdly made a deal to lease these films for television screening during its early days where they were apparently well received.

 
 
 
 
At the end of the corridor was a heavy pair of plush curtains that hid the entrance to the auditorium.  Once patrons began to fumble and pull at the curtains, an usherette would suddenly appear through the opening that only she could find.  Once allowed to pass through the curtains, tickets were taken, carefully inspected and next torn in two.  One half was given back to the patron while the other half would later be strung on a thin piece of string and eventually taken back to the box office.  Here their number would be carefully counted and then the tally was compared to the money taken in during the course of the evening.
 
 

Once inside the auditorium, there was a closed off walkway that led around the perimeter of the auditorium.  At one time, according to the plans, this area contained seats.  I suspect that once the walkway housed changing chalets in the days when the auditorium was a swimming bath.  By the time I knew the cinema, any seating had been long since been removed and the walkway was cordoned off and closed to patrons.

Access to the auditorium seating was only possible by walking down a few steps that the usherette lit with her torch.  Occasionally, a patron tripped and stumbled, much to the amusement of any kids in the auditorium.  The steps led directly into a wide aisle that cut right across the auditorium.  In addition, there were two other aisles that ran the full length of the cinema from the back of the auditorium down to the screen.  Seating was reasonably comfortable and in good condition.  I do not remember ever finding a broken seat at the Excelsior, a condition only too prevalent at the many fleapits found in Bethnal Green.  I believe that the front row of seating was of a wooden form and very close to the screen.  I never sat on this form and cannot ever remember any other patron doing so either.

 
 

The Excelsior had a small balcony, which I can only remember sitting in once.  I have absolutely no memory of how we gained access to it.  I suspect from looking at the floor plans that this was achieved via a flight of stairs found at the back of the auditorium/walkway.

I remember the Excelsior as always being clean and tidy and maintained in good condition.  I don’t remember the floors ever being littered with discarded sweet wrappers or ice cream tubs etc.  I do not recall any carpet in the auditorium other than on the steps and on the aisles.  I am told that just before its closure, good maintenance had become a thing of the past and that the screen was torn.  However, I only knew it when it still had a certain simple elegance and was a reasonably comfortable cinema. 

My memory of the auditorium décor is limited.  I believe that the walls were green with some gold accoutrements, but sadly I cannot be sure of this.   I do recall that on the walls on either side of the screen were three strange objects that looked like large inverted funnels.  As a child, I could not see the point of these objets d’art and remember thinking that they could only be used as ashtrays, although being positioned so high on the wall, this usage was obviously impractical.

The final programme shown at the Excelsior was screened during the week of Monday, 7 August, 1961 and consisted of Greyfriars Bobby with Donald Crisp and Laurence Naismith and Ten who Dared with Brian Keith.

 
 

The Excelsior became a Sunday Bingo Club some time before its closure as a cinema.  Following its official closure, it did reopen as a cinema and screened Indian films.  In 1969, the cinema closed for the final time.  Soon after, the newly formed Borough of Tower Hamlets agreed to its demolition as part of the redevelopment of the area and a housing estate soon occupied the site.

 
Special thanks are given to Ken Roe, Cinema Theatre Association, for providing much of the information used here regarding the history of the Excelsior.

I would like to thank Mr. Kevin Wheelen for providing all photographs of the Excelsior used here. I am truly grateful to him for his kindness.

 

Back to part one - The Excelsior - Prologue

Continue to part three - The Excelsior - A Personal Tale

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Copyrightę 2011 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins